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The Single Mom Caste

Kay S. Hymowitz has a provocative essay about how changing social and sexual mores have created an underclass caste. Lots to chew on here. Here is her bottom line:

So the single-mother revolution has left us with the following reality. At the top of the social order is a positive feedback loop, with kids raised in stable, high-investment, and relatively affluent homes going to college, finding similar mates, and raising their own children in stable, high-investment, and relatively affluent homes. At the bottom is a negative feedback loop, with kids raised by single mothers in unstable, low-investment homes finding themselves unable to adapt to today’s economy and going on to create more unstable, single-mother homes.

Not only do we have more poverty, inequality, and immobility; we have the makings of a caste society, with an inherited elite and an entrenched proletariat. That’s not an America that anyone finds very attractive.

The standard left-liberal narrative is to lament the loss of good manufacturing jobs for the working class, and to claim that it’s unjust that the rich and the middle classes can live by one set of moral principles, while expecting the poor and working classes to adhere to a stricter set of morals, re: their sexual lives. The idea seems to be that the sexual morality of these folks has nothing to do with their economic and social immobility. Hymowitz writes:

In describing what’s happened in places like Murray’s Fishtown, the conventional narrative generally doesn’t mention the single-mother revolution. Instead, it goes like this: in the past, men could drop out of high school and still earn enough to support a wife and children. Manufacturing jobs gave those men and their kids a foothold into the middle class. Today, however, low-skill factory jobs have either fled to China and Thailand or are being automated. High school dropouts—and grads, too—find themselves chopping tomatoes at Applebee’s or delivering newspapers. Men suffer, remembering how their grandfathers proudly worked the line; many give up. “The move from blue-collar to service work is brutal, and over time some employees lose the will to stick it out in a hateful job,” The New Yorker’s George Packer writes.

Meantime, women not only have joined the workforce; they have watched their earnings rise. Finding that they can “afford to go it alone,” as economist Nancy Folbre explained in a recent New York Times column, they became choosier about whom to marry, and many decide not to marry at all and to raise children on their own. But those children have been dealt a bad hand by the same forces of globalization and technology that hammered their fathers. These days, the Pew Economic Mobility Project reports, 42 percent of American children whose parents had earnings in the bottom quintile end up there as adults, a significantly higher percentage of immobility than one finds in Canada and much of Europe.

Parts of this story are indisputable. Good manufacturing jobs have indeed declined. The earnings of male high school dropouts and grads have barely budged since 1974. Jobs with health and retirement benefits aren’t so easy to find. Women are earning more and men less.

But the narrative’s omissions undermine its economic logic. For one thing, contra Folbre, many single mothers are barely getting by, as we’ve just seen. A father’s contribution to the family income, even if it was just $15,000, would dramatically improve the mother’s lot, not to mention that of her—or rather, their—children. Second, if you live the right way, it’s still possible to move up to the middle class, despite the factory closings of the last few decades. Ron Haskins of the Economic Mobility Project puts it this way: “If young people do three things—graduate from high school, get a job, and get married and wait until they’re 21 before having a baby—they have an almost 75 percent chance of making it into the middle class.” Those are pretty impressive odds.

While conceding that the economic side of this argument doesn’t get enough attention from conservatives, I don’t understand why so many liberals seem to think that those on the lower end of the economic spectrum should not be expected to live by a higher moral standard. I mean, from a strictly moral and theological perspective, they’re entirely correct: being rich doesn’t buy you a pass from the moral law. But from a realistic perspective, having less money means that living by the law is more necessary, because you have fewer material resources to pull yourself and your family out of the ditch if things go wrong. Poor and working-class people need their families, and a strong social structure, more than the rich do, precisely because they’re so vulnerable. This may seem unfair, but it can’t be gotten around. As Hymowitz points out, economic reality — particularly the kind of jobs that exist in the world as it is today, as opposed to the world of 50 years ago — makes it even more important that kids are raised in strong two-parent homes.

A friend of mine got involved in his son’s Cub Scout pack, helping out. Turns out his kid is the only boy in the pack who has a dad in the home. The raw emotional need the other boys had for a dad really got to him. Hearing his heartbreaking stories, I kept wondering how this absence of a father would play out in the emotional lives of these kids. Along those lines, I thought about things my sister would tell me about the kids in the classes she taught here in our town — about how so many of her children came from such difficult home lives that it made it hard for them, emotionally and psychologically, to focus on learning.

Then there’s this:

Add what social scientists call “assortative mating” to the mix, and you have greater, more intractable inequality. Assortative mating refers to marriages between men and women of similar educational status. In the past, women tended to “marry up”: nurses married doctors and secretaries their bosses. But as women increased their presence on campuses and then began to bring home more money, college-educated men decided that they were better off marrying one of their own. Think of the implications for household earnings. A lawyer was always likely to earn more than a plumber—but today, plenty of upper-income households are headed bytwo lawyers. That considerably widens the gap between a power couple and a lower-middle-class duo. Sociologist Christine Schwartz has estimated that assortative mating brought about a 25 percent to 30 percent increase in inequality among married-couple families between 1967 and 2005. Between power couples and single-mother families, the gap is far wider.

Part of this, I think, has to do with changing expectations from marriage. My late sister and I were very different in most respects, but we agreed that our marriages were different from the marriages of our parents’ generation. Looking at our folks and their friends, it seemed to Ruthie and me that people of our generation expected a lot more emotional fulfillment from their spouses than our parents’ generation did. To be specific, our generation tends to expect to be friends at a much broader level than older generations. When we were kids, our dads did lots of things with other dads, our moms did things with moms, and that was normal. Ruthie and I both described our spouses as our best friends, and meant it. That didn’t happen with the older crowd. What one looked for in a spouse, then, made it more likely that assortative mating would happen. In 1960, a lawyer could marry his secretary, and that would be normal because he wouldn’t expect to be able to talk about the law with his wife, nor would she have expected him to talk in depth about things she was interested in. That doesn’t happen so much today; the secretary would be as bored in that marriage as the lawyer. Don’t you think?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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